My husband went to bed hours ago, and I can hear him snoring as I type. I should be in there with him, his bear arms wrapped around me, me playing the (not-so-)little spoon to his big(ger) spoon.
But the clock struck midnight hours ago, and I am waiting for the dread to descend.
Fourteen years ago, on this day, my eldest sister, Dawn, died. She choked on her own vomit at a house party where she was working as a prostitute. Some cocktail of alcohol and drugs left her unconscious, and when her client noticed that she wasn't breathing, he sounded the alarm, and everyone at that party scrammed, leaving her alone as she passed from this world to the next.
Typing the above paragraph elicits almost no emotion from me. To me, Dawn's demise is a set of facts that I've repeated thousands of times since she faced the great mystery that is the afterlife. It's as much a part of the narrative of my life as is the day I was born, the name of the man I married, and the fact that I own two precious kitty furbabies.
Perhaps I should cry as I relay the information: She was a prostitute. She choked on her own vomit. She died alone.
But I don't.
I cried when Dawn died. The grief cut me then. I felt as profoundly as I'd ever felt before. I knew nothing but a vivid and violent sorrow. It wounded my soul.
But a despair that deep is accompanied by its own anesthetic. I describe it as hypothermia for the soul. At first, the cold is so all-consuming and acute that you are certain you will never again know what it is to feel anything but the pain. Then, something switches in you, and you feel nothing. Anguish gives way to apathy. But unlike actual hypothermia, which leads to death, this emotional freeze fluctuates. Sometimes the cold is unbearably sharp. And at other times, you don't fight it.
And that's why I'm here, now, wide-awake while the rest of the house sleeps: I don't know how cold I'll feel today.
Some years, I sob. Other years, I feel a calm acceptance. Then, some years, I allow my anger to consume me and I send the most malignant thoughts to the people who were too scared to call the police when Dawn was dying in front of them. And some years, I forget. I forget that today is that day. I go about doing whatever -- grabbing coffee, snuggling my kitties, laughing with my husband, reading a new book, tidying my home -- and then, when I'm about to drift to sleep, the realization strikes that my sister will never again get coffee, will never own a cat, will never have a husband, will never read another page, will never have a home to tidy.
If I'm lucky -- if whatever forces out there align in just the right way -- then some years I am able to just spend the day remembering the good things about Dawn.
How she played her clarinet with gusto yet little skill. How she coaxed her permed bangs to stand six inches high. How she prepared for her flag team audition by twirling a dust-laden broom. How she collected Tigger dolls. (What? It was the '90s! This shit was cool then!)
I hope this year is that. I hope I remember the quirky, pleasant bits that comprised Dawn. After all, isn't that the role of the remaining? To keep the memory of their loved one alive?
It's such a burden, this remembering. It's an imposition about which no one ever warns you. This person who once occupied space in this world is gone, and you are tasked with maintaining their legacy. To forget the dumb little details --- their goofy laugh, the time they stole your kaboodle, the time you got them grounded --- is to forget that they existed. But you must. You must remember when you just want to forget.
Dawn and I didn't get along well. My parents adopted her when I was 7, and I saw her as the diva that stole my starring role as oldest child. Additionally, she struggled with addictions, depression, and a history that included sexual abuse, removal from her birth parents, and negligent foster care parents. As a child and teenager, I wasn't perceptive enough to understand the intricacies of what Dawn faced. We never talked about her problems. Instead, I judged them.
Then, when I was 16 and she was 20, she moved out and stopped communicating with my family, other than when she needed something. I was 17 when she came home briefly, after contracting a horrific pelvic disease after a botched abortion. And then, just as quickly as she came, she left, and I never talked to her again.
This was before Facebook. Before cell phones were an evolutionary attachment to our hands. Nobody texted. Nobody Skyped. Nobody tweeted. Keeping in touch was done the old-fashioned way: face-to-face or via land lines.
I didn't know where Dawn lived. I didn't know her phone number. I couldn't have gotten in touch with her if I'd tried (although, admittedly, I didn't). I hoped she'd remember important events. But my birthday passed without any word. Christmas came and went. Her 22nd birthday. My high school graduation.
And then, the cops called. She was dead. And thus my duty, my responsibility of remembering, began.
So, here I sit, reliving these moments, excavating the past, and coming to the same dark realization I reach each year: I failed her in life. I can't fail her now. I can't let that life be forgotten. Instead, I must mine those brief years of good memories and thrust them into the world at least one day a year. And today is that one day.
Will I share the story of her addiction to Christian interpretive dance performances? Or the tale of how she donned her roommate's native Hawaiian dress and wore it to church? Or the bit about her dumping a glass of lemonade on my head when I wouldn't give her the TV remote? Or will I only be able to dwell on the fact that I am now 10 years older than she ever lived to be? Will this be the year that I run out of memories? Out of stories? Out of my ability to carry on her legacy?
I do not know.
I want to remain here, in the dark, asking myself the unanswerable. And while I might never see Dawn again, I will watch the sun rise in a few hours, and I must be ready to face the day.
True story: Life would be super swell if we all embraced our OMG side instead of living a Facebook-friendly existence. So, let it out. How much of a bummer was this post? Yeah, I know. I'm sorry about that. Do you know any knock-knock jokes? You can share them below, if you feel so inclined. Feel free to disclose details. You're safe here.